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India’s student-run law reviews face major questions

India’s student-run law reviews face major questions

AshwitaAmbastIt is remarkable that the guardians of the most powerful academic gateways in legal scholarship in the United States are law students. Several of the most influential American journals such as the Harvard Law Review and the Yale Law Journal are produced by top universities and are entirely student-run (and proudly so) and feature no element of peer-review  that is, some form of evaluation by someone knowledgeable in the field. The absence of peer reviewing appears to be unique to legal academia, and unsurprisingly, this fact has drawn considerable flak.

The most classic critique of American journals was penned by Professor Fred Rodell as early as 1936. In his article “Goodbye to Law Reviews”, he strongly questions the academic contribution made by the ‘Harvard Law Review-style’ article as well as the poor, fluffy quality of writing he claims it encourages. Other critics point out inter alia that student editors are unable to fully evaluate technical analyses, particularly the kind found in articles that lie at the intersection of law and other disciplines. Student editors are frequently accused of being distracted by (arguably irrelevant) details such as the position and reputation of the author, conformity with a popular style of writing, and the volume of footnotes. It is true that peer review is not free of its flaws. The objectivity and independence of peer reviewers are frequently called into question as well. But the outrage and criticism against student-run journals is far more pronounced and on the face of it, valid.

What about the reviews being produced by Indian law universities? On surveying the information available about a series of law reviews published by Indian universities, some relevant observations can be made.

Image on the left is from Janet Lindenmuth's photostream on Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Image on the top-right is from Kristopher Nelson's photostream on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Image on the left is from Janet Lindenmuth’s photostream on Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Image on the top-right is from Kristopher Nelson’s photostream on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

First, like the U.S., the kind of journals Indian law universities publish are generally of two kinds. The first is the flagship journal with diverse content, such as the Amity Law Review, the NUJS Law Review, and the NLUD Student Law Review. Also, in addition to the flagship reviews, Indian law universities are witnessing the proliferation of more streamlined journals that publish articles in more niche areas. There exist journals on subjects as specific as corporate crimes, telecommunications and broadcasting law, and law and technology. It appears that both these types of journals, flagship journals as well as niche ones, are a mix of peer-reviewed and student-run.

Second, there are a handful of journals that either state that they have an ‘advisory board’ or that they are jointly run by students and professors. What role do the advisors and professors play in the running of the journals, specifically in selecting the articles and controlling their quality? Does the final say lie with the student editors? On these fronts, many contemporary Indian journals beg clarity.

Finally, there are a handful of journals that indicate in clear terms that they are peer reviewed. However, the universe of peer reviewing is complex; the term ‘peer-reviewed’ itself begs further detail. Despite liberally using serious qualifying terms such as ‘rigorous’ and ‘international’, most journals seem to be unclear about what exactly their review process is.

The overarching conclusion from the three observations outlined above is that Indian law school scholarship has not completely dodged the attendant disadvantages of student run reviews entirely. Much writing is published sans peer review. In cases where peer review is employed, the process is varied and in most cases begs detail and transparency. While this observation may appear banal, it seems fair to expect that journals be more upfront with their potential contributors about the future of their articles. Who is reading them? Who decides their fate? Where are the red lines coming from?

These observations are preliminary and can potentially be fixed. But there is a larger, more ambitious and more pressing inquiry to be made. The flaws of the existing model of legal scholarship in America (of which the student-run or peer-review debate is just a part) are making journals less relevant to the Bar and even to academia. Apparently, about 43% of law reviews have never been cited in another article or judicial decision. Are Indian law reviews, both peer reviewed and student-run, facing similar challenges of redundancy? How useful are Indian law reviews to the judiciary when decisions are being delivered? What role do university published law reviews play in the work of the Bar? Does the academy believe that these publications are fecund ground for debate? These are some of the questions that this article series seeks to answer in its next editions.

Ashwita Ambast is a graduate of the National Law School of India University and the Yale Law School and has worked with the National Law School of India Review, the Yale Journal of International Law and the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal.

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